For many Lebanese, Iranian agent and proxy Hezbollah stands at the top of Lebanon’s sectarian-based system of power; therefore, it is complicit in the corruption many blame for the port disaster and for driving the country into near bankruptcy. The Lebanese are finally holding Hezbollah accountable for its incompetence, violence, and corruption.
The season of discontent against Hezbollah comes as Lebanese suffer under an economic crash that has driven nearly half of the population into poverty. Rather than push for reform, critics say, Hezbollah has stood by its political allies who resist change. It also denied support to nationwide protests that erupted in October demanding the end of the dysfunctional political structure.
IRAN USES HEZBOLLAH TO INSTILL FEAR
Sara Jaafar joined a group of political activists gathered on Aug. 4 to discuss strategies to challenge Lebanon’s entrenched rulers when their building was shaken and the windows blasted out by the giant explosion that rocked Beirut.
She took cover from the flying debris, thoughts rushing through her head of past political assassinations in Lebanon. Her immediate reaction was that Hezbollah was targeting the dissidents’ meeting.
The blast was in fact at the port of Beirut. Its cause was a stockpile of ammonium nitrate port authorities stored there for years. So far, it appears to be a result of longtime government mismanagement. Theories abound about what triggered the explosion, including Hezbollah creating more havoc on Iranian behest.
Jaafar’s initial reaction reflected the fear Hezbollah has instilled among many Lebanese.
Jaafar, a secular Shiite, asked:
Who controls most of everything? [Hezbollah and its ally, President Michel Aoun] are the people in charge. … They bear the responsibility.
In the wake of the blast, Hezbollah has come under unprecedented public criticism. Its role in Lebanese politics as an Iranian agent is under intense scrutiny.
LEBANESE ARE FINALLY HOLDING HEZBOLLAH ACCOUNTABLE
Cardboard effigies of Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and other politicians were hanged on nooses at a rally after the blast. Some accused Hezbollah of storing weapons at the port. Hezbollah’s political rivals seized the opportunity to fan hostilities against it and its allies.
Social media posts mocked Nasrallah’s speeches. One noted how the U.S. killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January prompted Nasrallah to weep and threaten revenge. While in his first speech following the blast, he was smiling and calm. Weeping for one Iranian, and smiling for the death of 170 Lebanese. Not to mention 6,000 injuries and 300,000 homeless.
Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based Hezbollah expert, said:
There is a paradox there with Hezbollah. They have never been more powerful politically and militarily. But they have never faced such an array of challenges as well.
Iran developed Hezbollah’s power and resources as a resistance movement against Israel and became virtually a state within a state. It heads a powerful military force and a welfare network for its Shiite supporters. In other words, Iran buys its support in Lebanon.
Hezbollah remains Lebanon’s only armed force outside the military. It controls the borders and plays a crucial role in Iranian-backed wars in the region, like Syria’s.
HEZBOLLAH KILLED RAFIK HARIRI
In 2005, Hezbollah killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and changed Lebanon’s political course. The bombing sent nearly a million people into the streets, forcing Hezbollah’s ally Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon.
After that, Hezbollah began seeping into the system. From having a handful of Parliament members to becoming Lebanon’s most powerful political faction.
Hezbollah and its allies formed the last Cabinet. Its failures came to be seen as Hezbollah’s, Blanford said.
And they were many. As an example, the government failed to enact reforms, stem the financial meltdown or reach a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund. It finally resigned after the explosion.
Hezbollah plays a significant role in forming the new government.
To deflect criticism, Nasrallah addressed supporters several times, denying Hezbollah had anything to do with the port explosion.
He made thinly veiled warnings to critics. In an Aug. 14 speech, Nasrallah warned repeatedly against pushing Lebanon toward civil war. He urged supporters to “hold onto their anger” over criticism, hinting it would be unleashed against opponents.
In Hezbollah’s stronghold in the Beirut suburb Dahiyeh, supporters saw the explosion as a conspiracy to weaken Lebanon and the group.Hezbollah uses the Beirut Port to smuggle drugs.
HEZBOLLAH’S VIOLENCE IS ON THE RISE
Meanwhile, social tensions are on the rise. Opponents of Hezbollah clashed twice with the group’s supporters, including a gunfight on Thursday that killed two bystanders and wounded several. Gunmen reportedly opened fire over religious banners raised by Hezbollah supporters.
Mourners chanted at a funeral of one of the killed:
There is no god but God, and Nasrallah is the enemy of God.
Following the explosion, Hezbollah made some internal changes, part of a shift inward after the nationwide protests and its receding role in Syria’s war, an official with the group said. Nasrallah replaced the head of an agency that coordinates with Hezbollah’s allies. He also gave the terror group security chief a bigger portfolio. Media operations are also changing, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to confirm media reports.
After the blast, Jaafar and other victims demanded an international investigation.
She said in an angry speech at a gathering near the port:
We lost our homes, our kids, our fathers and our city. We lost everything.
“All of them means all of them,” the small crowd chanted, naming Nasrallah among other leaders they want out of power.
The port blast devastated Jaafar’s apartment in a landmark building nearby. An architect, Jaafar is considering leaving the destruction as a reminder of how it all went wrong.
We want a real nation, a real country. This is a jungle.
Jaafar said protest activists are realizing they must work with allies within the system for change — push for early elections and challenge Hezbollah and its allies in Parliament.
“We won’t get rid of them in one election,” she said.
AP contributed to this article.